John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy letters to be auctioned
WASHINGTON — A 16-year-old Bobby Kennedy, with all four front teeth chipped from playing football, was planning to head home from Milton Academy for the weekend. Writing before the Kennedy family experienced a series of tragic deaths, there was a fatalistic side to his thoughts.
“I’m going home this weekend to see my brother Jack who is now going into PT boats,” Kennedy wrote to one of his friends, “so I’m getting out to see him because he might be killed any minute.”
The letter is part of two separate batches of newly revealed correspondence — one series written by Robert F. Kennedy, the other by John F. Kennedy — that are being made public for the first time and are set to be auctioned next month at the Omni Parker House in Boston. RR Auction said it has authenticated the letters using in-house experts and outside consultants.
The two collections reveal a family in the middle of World War II, just before two members were killed in airplane accidents, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. in 1944 and Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy in 1948.
The letters from John F. Kennedy were sent to the family of Harold W. Marney, one of two crew members killed when the PT-109 boat that he commanded was destroyed by a Japanese ship. A 26-year-old Kennedy wrote condolences to a family whose son had died.
“This letter is to offer my deepest sympathy to you for the loss of your son,” he wrote shortly after the August 1943 accident. “I realize that there is nothing that I can say can make your sorrow less; particularly as I know him; and I know what a great loss he must be to you and your family.”
Marney had joined the boat a week earlier to serve as engineer, Kennedy wrote, and he did his job “with great cheerfulness — an invaluable quality out here.”
“I am truly sorry that I cannot offer you hope that he survived that night,” he wrote. “You do have the consolation of knowing that your son died in the service of his country.”
Several months later, Kennedy wrote another letter, in response to one he had received from the Marneys asking for more information about their son. The telegram they received from the Navy said little more than that their son “is missing following action in the performance of his duty.”
Kennedy again wrote his condolences, and said that all the information he had was included in the previous letter. After the Japanese destroyer hit their ship, they never saw Marney again.
After the crew reunited on a floating bow, Kennedy wrote, “we could find no trace of him, although every effort was made to find him.”
Kennedy’s heroism during the accident, in which two were killed but all the others managed to get to land and were eventually rescued, later helped lay the foundation for his rise as a national politician.
The Marney family also wrote Kennedy after his older brother, Joe, died in a plane crash. This time the roles were reversed as they offered condolences to him.
“Boys like Harold and my brother Joe can never be replaced,” Kennedy responded in a letter with a Hyannis Port letterhead and postmarked Sept. 1, 1944. “But there is some consolation in knowing that they were doing what they wanted to do — and were doing it well.”
The items being auctioned also include the telegram that the Marneys received informing them that their son was missing, as well as the Purple Heart he was awarded.
The 18 letters to be auctioned that Robert Kennedy wrote between 1941 and 1945 were to a close friend, Peter MacLellan, whom he befriended at the Portsmouth Priory School in Rhode Island. The batch also includes nine letters from Robert’s sister Jean, whom MacLellan dated at one point.
They show Bobby as an adolescent, discussing sports, school, and girls as he mourns that he seemed to lack the charming ways of his brother.
“I am now chasing women madly but it looks as if I lack the Kennedy charm as I have yet to find a girl who likes me but then I don’t quit easily so I’m still in there struggling,” Robert Kennedy wrote to MacLellan in a letter postmarked July 3, 1944. “How’s that love life of yours?”
Kennedy showed a jovial side and a fair amount of teenage braggadocio. He signed one letter, “from your mental & physical superior and your better in football, hockey and baseball, Robert Francis Kennedy.” In another he noted, “I’m still healthy, strong . . . and good looking as ever.”
But Kennedy also lacked some of the athletic prowess that his family was known for.
“Baseball has started and I decided to go out for it and of course got cut but I expected it so it doesn’t much matter,” he wrote in a letter postmarked March 13, 1943.
At another point, he refers to his younger brother, Teddy, and his football abilities.
“Football is going stinky due to the fact there’s a guy on 2nd team ahead of me who can play ball as well as Teddy my brother and the coach thinks he’s better than me. I guess no one appreciates my true qualities . . . The whole thing can go to Hell.”
MacLellan said that he kept the letters in the bureau in his bedroom for decades, stuffed in their original envelopes.
“I’m 90. I’ll be 91 on Patriots Day next year. How much longer am I going to live?” MacLellan, who now lives in Florida, said in a phone interview. “I’ve always felt that it was time now to get something done about Bobby. Before I passed away.”
He recalled being with Kennedy on Hyannis Port when the family found out that Joe Kennedy had been killed in World War II — and later driving with Bobby to have dinner with his grandfather, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald.
“Honey Fitz said to Bobby, ‘Look, you now have to make up for the loss of your brother. Your approach has to be all different,’ ” MacLellan recalled.
The letters from John F. Kennedy have been sitting in an envelope inside a safe deposit box for decades in Springfield, Mass., passed down to members of Marney’s family.
The two sets of letters are being auction on Sept. 18 by RR Auction, an auction house based in Boston’s North End. The opening bid for those written by John F. Kennedy is $10,000, while the starting bid for the Robert Kennedy letters is $2,500.
“They’re really classic examples of the young Kennedys’ handwriting,” said John Reznikoff, an outside handwriting expert who helped authenticate the letters. “Absolutely genuine.”
An outside authentication expert contacted by the Globe declined to comment on the letters without seeing them in person.
A spokeswoman for the John F. Kennedy Library said they were not aware of the auction, and the owners of the letters said they never contacted the library before going to the auction house. Caroline Kennedy and members of Robert Kennedy’s immediate family did not respond to requests for comment.
Dennis Harkins, who is Marney’s nephew, recently decided to sell the letters from John F. Kennedy. He was worried that their condition would continue to deteriorate or that they would lose significance over time.
“I’m 72. I just started thinking, I watch ‘Antique Road Show,’ those type of things. ‘Pawn Star.’ They say condition is everything; things start to deteriorate,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘What’s the point of sitting on these things? What’s the point?’”